In Vino Veritas 21

We have a problem…. you are persona non grata…

The Polish border was dead ahead.

This Russian exit border post resembled Dodge City when all the saloons were at full tilt. Loosely attired officials were all paralytic or pretty close to it. Bonhomie abounded, as did litres of vodka, the pervasive odour of which drifted through the airwaves.
Would we bother trying to show these jolly elbow benders that, as agreed, a copy of Dr Zhivago was about to leave the USSR… or just decline the offer of a rinse or two and be on our way? The good doctor stayed put. Off we went. Goodwill prevailed.

I am certain that the Polish border was on the lovely sounding river Bug or one of it’s tributaries. When we arrived, the air splintered with the cold, and if there was a river, it would have been a metre below, buried under solid ice. Getting out of the car, we saw our reception committee, a load of bored squaddies armed to the teeth and dying for something to do. If for some reason I had panicked and made a run for it, my metamorphosis to cat food would have been instantaneous.

We were ushered into the border building. A fire crackled in the grate, comfy surroundings, no sign of booze, only two pale blue eyes greeted us, eyes that weighed up the new arrivals with measured calculation. They belonged to an officer of no mean rank, captain, major? He spoke fluent English and,  settling in his creaky but cosy chair, asked about our travels. As by way of mere formality, he asked for our passports and travel documents. ‘This won’t take long’…
A measured pause in his examination of the documents. His chair creaked as he his finger tapped on the desk top. Calculated silence. A card was about to be played…
‘We have a problem, a rather big one’, our man intoned in a gravitas sort of way. He was enjoying this, his chair creaking again in anticipation. He went on, ‘Your Russian visas have expired as of now, and your Polish visas don’t start until tomorrow. Oh Dear. You are persona non grata, you can’t go anywhere, you can’t stay here, but you have to. What are we going to do?’ 
He knew bloody well what we were going to do. We would find out. The next tangential musings from him told me exactly where this train was going.
‘Australia eh? Big country, isn’t it?’ A few more anodyne questions. Come on sweetie, I thought, time to play your big card. He did.
‘Is the Australian dollar a hard currency, a la Sterling, US Dollar?’ He wondered. So that way goes the game. ‘Yes, it is,’ I replied. ‘What do they look like?, old blue eyes moved his Queen to the pre-checkmate position. By chance I had about 80 bucks of varying denominations in my wallet.

The next exchange approached the speed of light.
In a wonderful ambidextrous display he pocketed the money and stamped the passports with a resounding. ‘CHING! CHING!’ in the same swift movement.

‘Enjoy your stay in Poland’ he said as he indicated the door.
The chair chortled rather than creaked.

We set off. WHAT? … The premonition was still there…more so than ever….

Previous episode

The journey begins

In Vino Veritas 1

In Vino Veritas 20

Moscow was drab. The Italian sparkle of Rastrelli’s Leningrad architecture had not caught this bus. Worse, historical degradation of some earlier wonderful buildings was wholesale, with post industrial projects or raze and rebuild carrying all before it.
But, one thought, the pride and joy of contemporary Russian space achievement (aka VDNKh… the All Russian Exhibition Centre) would be a jewel in the crown. God it was tired. Should I have been a space explorer and this kind of technical skill was the best on offer I would get the hell out of it. If one had a sneezing fit, the whole theme park would have flattened, domino like, before your eyes. A Tupelov rocket seemed to lean against a wall, totally unloved. Even Yuri Gagarin, in effigy, was covered up, as he could not bear to look.


A kind of wide -eyed ‘wow/hate’ spectacle replaced all this. No peeing about here, this took the form of good old fashioned social realist sculpture. Muscles the size of barracudas, breasts you could throw a hen party in, these heroic defenders were a mile high and the set of their jaws would discourage any kind of opposition. Their muscled legs and arms would get you to Vladivostok in one bound. Should spurs be needed to hasten the journey, loads of hammers and sickles were to hand to help things along.
They induced a morbid fascination, imagining that some starving Stalinist peasant would see this and, so deluded, die a happy man.

Worker and Kolkhoz woman – wikipedia


I once gazed at a Brancusi sculpture which you could hold in the palm of your hand, it would dwarf all of this.

The Pushkin museum was wonderful.

One abiding memory. In many hotels, at the end of the corridor, a little babushka sat (for eternity it would seem) in order to monitor the comings and goings of the guests.
Were we under surveillance? I doubt it. I once whispered to Ronda (Sotto
voce) that Esmeralda was stuffed full of Western codes and detailed drawings of prototype Exocet rockets.
Rosa Klebb wasn’t listening, or if she was, she was still thinking about the time she saw me on the dance floor in Leningrad.

The next stop was the city of Minsk, the capital of today’s Belarus. Until 1991 Belarus was part of the Soviet Union but now has become an independent state. It suffered terribly in WW2, a huge local museum testifies to this. It also has a rich tradition of Russian Orthodoxy and this was demonstrated to me by our charming guide. At one point we gazed at some stunning early ceiling frescoes which had additional sparkle provided but the cluster of icicles which refracted the light. How had they survived? All of this splendour sat cheek by jowl with hectares of Stalinist architecture.

This image from archdaily.com shows the contrasting architecture of modern Minsk

However, Poland beckoned. The temperature dropped alarmingly, but the wind speed increased in the same ratio. On a dead straight road the snow cascaded across the road . Dead ahead an intrepid babushka was sweeping off the roadside blizzard. WHY?
I will never know. I could not understand.

Much later than this, I read Colin Thubron’s splendid book ‘In Siberia’, a masterpiece of travel writing. I wish I had this to hand as we traversed this country. His account of the gulags in Eastern Siberia has no equal.

‘At Oimyakon the temperature has been recorded at -97.8 F. In far lesser cold, steel splits, tyres explode and larch trees shower sparks at the touch of an axe. As the thermometer drops, your breath freezes into crystals, and tinkles to the ground with a noise they call ‘the whispering of the stars.’ ‘This country of Kolyma was fed every year by sea with tens of thousands of prisoners, mostly innocent. Where they landed, they built a port, then the city of Magadan,then the road inland to the mines where thy perished. At first the convicts were peasant kulaks and criminals, then as Stalin’s paranoia heightened – imagined saboteurs, and counter revolutionaries from every class: Party officials, soldiers, scientists, doctors, teachers, artists. They died in miners tunnels from falling rocks and snapped lift cables, from ammonal fumes and silicosis, scurvy and high blood pressure, spitting up blood and lung tissue.
A prisoner had no name, no self. He could be addressed only by his number.’

From In Siberia by  Colin Thubron

We approached the Polish border. Premonitions were not unknown to me, I think they were pretending to hide, although not very well, in the frozen air.


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